The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

3

A Third British Empire? The Dominion Idea in
Imperial Politics
JOHN DARWINIn the twentieth century, as in the eighteenth, the cohesion of the British Imperial system in a highly unstable environment was the central problem of Imperial politics. Few world empires escape for very long the threat of dissolution from external attack or internal disruption. The longevity of British imperialism owed much to the forces of economic and cultural attraction which underpinned its political expansion as well as to the great demographic tide which had flowed out from the home islands after 1815. But it also depended upon holding an exceptionally delicate balance between the conflicting interests of what had become by 1914 a huge and extremely variegated Empire.To survive at all as a political unit, the Imperial system had two fundamental requirements: an effective means of Imperial defence and the co-operation of political allies in all its assorted colonial and semi-colonial hinterlands. Without the loyalty or collaboration of settlers, sultans, sheikhs, chiefs, zamindars, nawabs, and 'creole' or 'Anglo-Oriental' élites in the Caribbean, West Africa, and South Asia, the Second British Empire would have suffered the same fate as the First. But collaboration abroad was only part of the Imperial problem: there also had to be collaboration at home. Imperially minded interests in Britain needed friends and allies in domestic politics prepared to meet the costs of Empire—especially its defence costs. Time and again, they also needed supporters who would accept the constitutional and ideological flexibility needed in the management of Imperial politics and for the containment of colonial nationalism. It was for this latter reason that the 'Dominion Idea' came to play such an important part in the construction of a Third British Empire in the twentieth century.
The fullest scholarly treatment of Britain's relations with the White Dominions between the wars is R. F. Holland, Britain and the Commonwealth Alliance, 1918-1939 (Basingstoke, 1981). The indispensable account of inter-war Imperial politics is John A. Gallagher, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire: The Ford Lectures and Other Essays, ed. Anil Seal (Cambridge, 1982). Some of the ideas in this chap. can be found in an earlier form in John Darwin, 'Imperialism in Decline?' Historical Journal, XXIII, 3 (1980), pp. 657-79 and 'Durham in the East? India and the Idea of Responsible Government, 1858-1939', Journal of Canadian Studies, XXV, 1 (1990), pp. 144-61.

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